URBANA, Ill. – Looking back over the highlights and successes of his 40-year career in academic programs, Jesse Thompson returns to the same theme over and over—relationships.
“I guess my story kind of begins with my ag teacher,” Thompson says, recounting how the high school supporter helped shape his vision for a career. “He had aspirations for me that I didn’t have at that time.” From there, Thompson’s list of mentors—and students he has mentored over the years—only grows.
“There's something about relationships that I don't think people really get. Even today,” Thompson says. “There's something about relationships that lasts.”
Thompson retired from the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) at the University of Illinois on May 31 after serving as assistant dean and coordinator of diversity programs. He joined ACES in 1992 as assistant to the associate dean and coordinator for what was then called minority affairs.
Thompson was instrumental in developing the innovative pre-college Research Apprentice Program (RAP) to help diversify the ACES student body. Now called Discovering STEM in ACES, the program welcomes students of color and first-generation college students by connecting them with mentors and research opportunities. He received over $5 million in funding from the USDA for his educational and outreach programs for students of color in ACES, and was one of the founding members of the national Minorities in Agriculture and Natural Resources and Related Sciences (MANRRS) student organization.
Over the years, Thompson has invested in countless relationships with RAP participants and their families, and has been relentless in seeing students succeed.
“Dr. Jesse Thompson has a gift for seeing the potential in you that you, yourself, could not imagine,” says Lynda Cabrales, director of engineering at Standard Process, and RAP alumna. “He impacted so many lives by creating paths and providing guidance through their academic journey. I am grateful for his investment in me, and I know I would not be where I am if it were not for him.”
Before earning his master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Illinois, Thompson taught high school agricultural education in North Carolina. As a graduate assistant in the, then, College of Agriculture at U of I, Thompson wrote his dissertation on recruitment and retention of students from underrepresented groups and what attracts students to agriculture.
“What was so fantastic about that, for me, is how many people get to write a dissertation and then it comes alive? Because all the things that I wrote about were the things that I eventually was allowed to explore further in my career in academic programs,” Thompson says.
As a faculty member at the University of Florida, Thompson helped develop a summer experience for high school students from underrepresented groups in agriculture, a program that grew out of his dissertation and was modeled after a program at Michigan State University. The connections and relationships built as a graduate student at Illinois soon brought Thompson back to ACES, where he worked to recruit students from underrepresented groups across the state and continued to grow the Minority Apprentice Program, later renamed RAP—work that started while he was a graduate student.
“We wanted kids to discover what the science was that we were offering in agriculture. We were bringing students on campus and doing research projects in faculty labs. It was an incredible transformation, not just in terms of bringing more students on campus, but the faculty interaction with the students,” Thompson explains.
Highlighting the success of RAP over the years, Thompson notes that 96% of RAP participants at U of I graduate from U of I with their degree.
“We’ve had an extremely successful effort with the program. Who do I give that credit to? I give credit to the faculty. Because students come and build relationships with the faculty,” Thompson says.
Despite successful statistics of the program, Thompson loves to talk about the individual success of the participants.
Nicole López Vargas participated in RAP for three years and worked as Thompson’s student worker throughout her undergraduate degree.
“Since then, I attended veterinary school and became a DVM. Dr. Thompson has been the most important person to propel me into the place I am professionally today. Dr. Thompson’s support never wavered, and his belief in me allowed me to believe in myself. I will always consider him my mentor.”
Thompson sees his role a bit differently. “I didn't go out there and grow talent. I went out and convinced talent that ACES was the place to put that talent. And then I helped students find the tools for success that they could use to apply that talent.”
In fact, Thompson says he often tells apprentices and their parents at the program orientation, “If there's anybody out there in that crowd who’s not planning on being successful, would you please get up and leave the program? Because I only want to hang out with successful people.”
Among his many other accolades, Thompson received an Outstanding Service Award from the USDA, an Outstanding Service Award in 2017 from the Professional Agricultural Workers Conference for his work with 1890 institutions, an Outstanding Partner Award in 2017 from Chicago Public Schools, the Cowan “Make a Difference Award” from the chancellor in 2011, the ACES Student Council Outstanding Club Advisor Award in 2010, the Chancellors Award for Academic Professional Excellence in 2007, and many more. Students “Dr. T” has mentored are now among the ranks of university chancellors, corporate executives, medical doctors, and countless educators.
“Throughout his career in ACES, Dr. Thompson was instrumental in recruiting, providing outreach and support to, and ensuring the success of our diverse ACES student body,” says associate dean for academic programs Anna Ball. “Even more important than this list of career accomplishments is who Jesse is as a person, and the compassion he has shown us all throughout his career. He was a friend to all, a mentor to many, and he truly cared about making every person in the ACES community feel welcomed and connected. We congratulate him on a remarkable career in ACES.”
A retirement celebration for Thompson is being planned for Oct. 1, 2021.
Those who would like to honor Thompson and his many accomplishments and contributions to the College of ACES are encouraged to provide a gift to the University of Illinois Foundation for the Jesse C. Thompson Scholarship Fund.
Please send to the UI Foundation, P.O. Box 734500, Chicago, IL 60673-4500. Contributions may be provided online at www.giving.illinois.edu. Include the Jesse C. Thompson Scholarship Fund (341405) in the other field of the giving form. Questions can be directed to Stacey Cole at email@example.com or 217-333-9355.